When I travelled through the Balkans, I was fortunate enough to be on an open-ended trip with no specific return date in mind. The Balkans are however a region that can easily be explored in a smaller time period for travellers taking a short break from work. Here are three sample routes for a short Balkan itinerary that can give you taste of the region and will undoubtedly leave you wanting to come back and explore more of the Balkans!
For the culture and history lover
Whilst not technically in the Balkans, start your Balkan itinerary in Budapest which is one of the largest hubs in Central Europe, making it easy to fly into from anywhere in the world. There are many things to do in Budapest so spend a few days exploring the historical Buda side, drinking in the ruin bars on the Pest side and at least one afternoon in one of Budapest’s famous baths.
From Budapest, make your way to the Balkans by hopping on a train to Belgrade. I suggest spending at least three full days in Belgrade so you have time to explore the historical sites, get to know the hospitable locals and spend at least one evening sampling Belgrade’s famous nightlife.
From Belgrade, it’s time to hop on a bus and visit Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a fascinating city with a unique culture to the rest of the Balkans due to its predominately secular Muslim population. Spend at least two days here, exploring the Old Town, checking out the abandoned bobsled track and relaxing with a shisha and tea.
From Sarajevo, it’s a three-hour bus ride to historic Mostar, a city that saw significant devastation during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. Spend one day exploring the city and one day touring a tour of nearby attractions which can be arranged from a number of hostels in Mostar.
Your last stop on this short Balkan trip is to take a bus to Montenegro and spend a few active days exploring Kotor. There are a number of great day hikes if you want to see a bit of nature but it’s also worth exploring the beautiful historic Old Town. If this is the end of your trip, there are several flight connections from Podgorica, a two-hour bus ride from Kotor.
Got more time? Head north from Kotor and spend a week or two exploring beautiful Croatia. Check out our perfect Croatia itinerary for ideas on where to go!
For getting off the beaten track
If you’re short on time but still want to get off the beaten track, this Balkan route is perfect for you!
Start by flying into Pristina in Kosovo which has a number of direct connections from European airports. Spend a day or two here adjusting to the slower pace of life before taking a bus to Prizren, arguably the most picturesque city in Kosovo. Prizren is a great city to spend a couple of days, exploring the Old Town and speaking to locals here where tourism is still definitely an emerging industry.
After Kosovo, it’s time to visit Skopje, Macedonia’s capital. It’s worth spending at least two to three days here, exploring the controversial Neo-classical buildings and statues, as well as taking a day trip to nearby Matka Canyon and Vodno Mountain.
Your next stop should be Lake Ohrid, undoubtedly the jewel of Macedonia tourism. Whilst, somewhat more popular than other destinations in this itinerary, Ohrid is still definitely worth spending at least two full days in. Make sure to explore the plethora of churches in Ohrid and go for a bike ride outside the main town where tourists are virtually non-existent.
The last stop on this off the beaten track Balkan itinerary is to head to Albania’s often overlooked capital, Tirana. Many guidebooks will tell you to only spend a day here, however, I strongly suggest spending at least two to three days here. There are few sites dotted around the city including Communist era bunkers and Dajti Mountain. The highlight in Tirana, however, is simply enjoying the laidback culture by having a leisurely coffee, sampling the delicious food and getting to know the friendly and hospitable locals.
Got more time? Continue your Balkan trip by exploring more of Albania including the UNESCO towns of Berat and Gjirokaster and the Adriatic Coast.
For those wanting to stay in one country
If you want to spend your Balkan trip getting to know one country in depth there’s arguably no better place than Bulgaria. Bulgaria has a great mixture of vibrant cities, fantastic nature and the beautiful Black Sea for those wanting a more relaxing time on the beach.
Start your trip in Bulgaria’s underrated capital, Sofia. I suggest at least three full days here to ensure you have enough time to explore the number of ruins dotted around the city, go on a free food tour to sample some of the local cuisines and visit the stunning cathedrals.
From Sofia, it’s a short bus ride to Plovdiv, arguably Bulgaria’s coolest city. There are a number of things to do in Plovdiv including exploring the picturesque Old Town, eating your way through the trendy Trap neighbourhood and possibly even going wine tasting!
After Plovdiv, it’s time to relax on Bulgaria’s beautiful Black Sea Coast. Avoid the touristy areas of Sunny Beach or Burgas and instead, head to charming Sozopol which has some lovely unspoilt beaches, delicious seafood restaurants and a charming town that will make it extremely difficult to leave for a few days.
Your next step should be the lively mountain city of Veliko Tarnovo. This is the perfect city to base yourself in if you want to spend a couple of days hiking in the nearby mountains. Alternatively, Veliko Tarnovo is also a large university town making it a great city to sample some nightlife and enjoy the cheap delicious food. If your Balkan trip ends here, take a three-hour bus back to Sofia to catch your connecting flight.
Got more time? From Veliko Tarnovo go take a train to Bucharest and spend a week or two visiting Romania!
Before setting off on your Balkans trip, make sure you have a valid travel insurance policy. We personally used World Nomads for our Balkans itinerary however it’s important to read the policy details to ensure it’s right for you. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads!
What do you think the best way is to spend a short Balkan trip? Add a comment below!